Can Denzel Washington make a comedy next? A light slapstick farce, perhaps? “The Little Things,” a turgid cop thriller arriving in area theaters and on HBO Max, comes on the heels of the “Equalizer” movies and the actor’s angry, electric turn in “Fences” (2016) and makes a prime case for turning that frown upside down. At times here, it hardens into a deep scowl; perhaps meant to signal existential unease, it reads more as a call for Metamucil.
The movie’s a watchable affair for most of the running time, not so much subverting cliches of the serial-killer genre as keeping the audience in suspense as to how, if, and when those cliches will be observed. Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former LA police detective who comes back to town after five years of self-exile up near Bakersfield, where he’s been atoning for past sins as a lowly patrol officer. The case that got away — a ritualistic triple murder of prostitutes — still obsesses him, especially now that similar murders are occurring at what seems a weekly clip.
A new detective, a young ramrod named Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Oscar winner for “Bohemian Rhapsody”), invites the visiting older lawman along to the latest crime scene — the first of many just-swallow-it-and-move-on moments in director John Lee Hancock’s script — and soon the two have unofficially paired up to find the killer. The murders are graphic, the mood biblical and grim, with religious references and imagery that never coalesce into anything meaningful. When Baxter asks his commanding officer (Terry Kinney) about Deacon’s past, he’s told, “The guy worked a case so hard he got a suspension, a divorce, and a triple bypass in six months. He’s a rush-hour train wreck.” Some movies would chew that kind of dialogue like a big old hambone, but “The Little Things” serves it up straight. More’s the pity.
The contrast between Deacon and Baxter is underscored by the actors’ radically different screen presences, Washington intuitive and improvisatory, and Malek hyper-controlled and eerily still. If they’re fascinating to watch together, their characters teaming up never holds dramatic water. Eventually, a potential suspect turns up in the person of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a creepy-crawly appliance repairman with a resemblance to Charles Manson and an interest in police work, and Leto’s own off-kilter line readings and body language turn “The Little Things” into a kind of three-way thespian wrestling match. There are worse ways to while away an evening.
Director Hancock has some hits (“The Blind Side,” 2009) and misses (“The Alamo,” 2004) to his name, as well as movies very good (“The Founder,” 2017) and less so (“Saving Mr. Banks,” 2013). Here he seems to be shooting for the gnawing ambiguities of a film like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007), in which a murder case is less something to be solved than proof of an unknowable universe.
If the characters in “The Little Things” made more sense and their judgment calls weren’t increasingly hard to fathom, those grander artistic designs might be realized. But too much seems to have been cut out for the film to hold together, including anything meaningful to do for Baxter’s actual police partner (Natalie Morales) and his wife (Isabel Arraiza). At over two hours, the movie stills slogs its way to an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s hardly a rush-hour train wreck, but it might have been more fun if it had been.
THE LITTLE THINGS
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto. Available at suburban theaters and on HBO Max. 127 minutes. R (violent/disturbing images, language, full nudity)